Zachary Gray – Co-Editor-in-Chief
Last May, the Shoulder-to-Shoulder program made its first trip to the African nation of Uganda. The two-week international service-learning trip took place in the rural village of Bumwalukani, as 12 students worked with groups of seventh graders in preparation for the children’s high school entrance exams. The Lasell students prepared about 20 lesson plans for the Ugandan students. Director of the Center of Spiritual Life, Reverend Dr. Tom Sullivan, and Lena Berc, Director of International Services, led the service-learning trip.
The group arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport on Tuesday, May 21 around 6 a.m. A layover in London took place before the group landed in Entebbe at 7:45 a.m. the next morning. After landing, the group rode for six hours on paved roads, then two hours on unpaved roads before arriving in Bumwalukani.
Senior Flannagh Fitzsimmons was one of the students who made the trip. Her expectations were a “third-world country” with a broken down school.
“You think you’re going to this country to help them,” said Fitzsimmons. “But at the end, they help you because they’re happy with what they have. That really changed everything.”
The school was recently upgraded, with the addition of a floor to the interior. But the Ugandan students were grateful for what they had: Americans teaching classes. The three subjects taught were English, science, and math, along with female self-esteem workshops and recess sessions.
“I was inspired by how curious the students were,” said Reginah Sanyu. “They were asking for more homework and I thought it was the craziest thing because nobody loves homework. But the Ugandan students wanted more homework and loved the fact that we were there to give them the special attention their teachers didn’t give them.”
The classes were a challenge at first for both sets of students. Fitzsimmons explained that concepts such as subject-verb agreement were difficult for the Ugandan students to grasp, no matter how much she broke down the lesson. At one point, she abandoned her lesson plan.
“The average educational attainment is grade three and a half,” said Sullivan, who has been to Bumwalukani three times. “Students drop out very early because they go work on the farm, or they just don’t get very far [in education]. In rural Uganda, they have the least resources.”
The Ugandan students succeeded at math, but struggled with word problems.
“In Ugandan public schools, they are required to teach in the local language through grade four,” said Sullivan. “Then in grades five, six, and seven, they can teach in English.” Not all students are taught English by the time they take their high school entrance exams, which are in English. This has presented problems.
Although there were challenges at first, the Lasell students’ teaching skills improved and Ugandan students began to grasp more concepts. This led to positive connections between the two groups, which stood out to Sullivan.
“By the third or fourth day, we’d walk up to the school and there would be students waiting for us at the top of the hill,” said Sullivan. “They befriended us; we befriended them.” Sullivan added that it was amazing to see urban city college students warming up and being friendly along with rural Ugandan kids. The Ugandans wanted to be friends and pen pals, and even come back to America with the Lasell students.
Fitzsimmons, a Human Services major, said they would really open up at times, whether it was recess, games, or teaching the Lasell students the Ugandan national anthem.
The group of Lasell students stayed at a guesthouse in the village, which held about 15 people. There was no running water at all in the village, fruits had to be cleaned with boiled water before eating, and electricity was lucky to come by. But the village had remarkable cell phone service, maybe even better than Lasell, according to Sullivan. The Lasell group was able to keep up with a blog while in the African nation. Sullivan brought over a school laptop and used a modem from the guesthouse to upload posts written by him and the students.
In one particular post, Sullivan talks about a reflection session the Lasell students had one night. One student spoke about her shoes becoming dirty from the clay. (This student also said she owned more than 30 pairs of shoes.) But when she saw cheerful Ugandan students walking two hours to class barefoot, it made her question what exactly happiness was.
The Lasell students learned a lot about themselves on the trip. Through the language barriers and other challenges she faced in teaching classes, Fitzsimmons realized she wanted to be a teacher.
“I came home pretty impressed with the Lasell students,” said Sullivan. “Everybody was touched by this trip. I think it changed their lives.”
Sullivan and Berc plan on returning to the same village to teach again next summer, this time focusing more on English development. They hope to bring along more education students, but are open to anyone looking to go.
“It’s one of the best things Lasell has to offer,” said Fitzsimmons. “I would do it all over again.”
“I want to go back. There never goes a single day where I don’t think about the people of Bumwalukani,” said Sanyu.
Information sessions for the next Uganda trip will take in October. To read the blog, visit LasellGoesToUganda.blogspot.com.